Alison McQueen


Travels with my mother (Part 1)

They say you need three things to travel in India; a good vehicle, a good horn, and good luck. All timings are approximate which translates roughly to: don’t hold your breath, it may never happen. If you are travelling with an aged mother who’s not much bigger than a doormouse, you also need the patience of a saint.

I first went to India with my mother in 1999 after she made a pointed comment over Sunday lunch that she thought I might have been by now, to which I said that I was waiting for her to take me. After all, she’s the Indian and without her I’m just a tourist. So off we went on the first of many sorties into her homeland.

It was easier then. She was a bit blind but everything else was in reasonable working order, give or take. By this particular trip however she was a lot more blind and came armed with a couple of Tupperware boxes stuffed to the gunnels with her daily meds. This time, we had decided upon an organized tour. It was the only way we could get travel insurance for the mother, and my initial plan to drag her all the way up to Darjeeling then into Nepal hadn’t gone down well with Norwich Union at all.

Davindra, our tour guide, picked us up from Delhi airport, a small group of eight, among them me and my sister, and mum. We weave ourselves, our luggage and Slow Doris through the traffic, and are quickly aware that Davindra has no intention of checking that we are still in tow.

Anyone who has experienced Delhi’s domestic airport and immediate surroundings will realize that negotiating the crowds is no mean feat. We dodge cars and painted lorries and a line of clapped out coaches before arriving at a tiny, ancient minibus with “Indian air conditioning” and no spare wheel. The vehicle jerks into the chaotic traffic.

Davindra suggests a tipping kitty, that everyone should contribute, say, fifty or sixty quid into, and from which he will tip whoever needs tipping so that we are not having to worry about it. My mother and I look at each other and hold onto our purses. The truth about tipping kitties is that they are tipped straight into the tour guide’s pocket, save the odd few rupees here and there when he thinks he is being watched. We don’t mention anything to the other tourists. They’ll get the hang of it sooner or later after being fleeced a few times.

Without warning, Davindra (armed with the bulging kitty), opens the door, says “see you tomorrow”, and steps off the moving vehicle directly into the busy roadway. The eight travelling companions, none of whom have met before today, exchange glances. We are now alone with the driver, who doesn’t speak a word of English and seems to be having trouble holding the decrepit bus in a straight line. We appear to be driving on the wrong side of the road too, heading directly into the oncoming traffic. My sister and I are not worried. Nor is my mother. We are used to it, and the old girl can speak Hindi.